10x Professional Growth
Structure and philosophy on career progression and professional mastery
As the year end draws closer and various companies are gearing up for the annual performance reviews, I thought I will write this essay from a dual perspective - that of an individual trying to advance their career (tagged I in parenthesis), and of a leader creating the right structure and rewarding the right archetype (tagged L in parenthesis). There is clearly no “one size, fits all” approach here, as you will see (for example - pervasive lack of career frameworks at startups), and there are always trade offs - and by being actually aware of some of these nuances will help you navigate your own career and gain some perspective about non-linear nature of career progression you’re most likely to experience. Note that, progressing in your career doesn’t always mean getting a promotion or securing a more highly paid role. Career progression can take many forms, including being awarded more responsibility within the role you already have, moving to a different sector or business, taking on new, sometimes a completely different challenge, propelling you towards professional mastery.
Career Frameworks (L)
Every established organization must have a rigorous career framework. Period. Dropbox has publicly shared their framework for engineering careers, which I think is pretty solid, and applicable to most modern high tech companies. This framework allows you as a leader to evaluate your talent in the most objective and data driven fashion, minimizing any subconscious biases, improving organizational decision making, and building a culture of transparency and mutual accountability. The framework also enables an ongoing dialogue between a leader and an employee to develop and refine an individualized career plan that’s aligned with business. When you don’t see a career framework in play, you maybe relying too much on the judgment of too few people - this, in its worst form, shows up as nepotism or cronyism, and at best unfair promotions through inconsistently applied criteria.
When is it okay not to have a career framework? Well, I’d say, when you’re an early stage startup, still figuring out their place in the work (aka chasing product market fit), you should either be building or selling or doing both. Everything else is optional. When you have a sustainable repeatable business, you better have the career framework in place already. So, the time to insert the framework is somewhere in between and the exact timing will depend on many elements including risk factors associated with change management.
Outcome vs Behavior (L)
As leaders, we often need to hold two (or more) competing thoughts in our minds at all times. Even with career frameworks in place, there is a fair bit of human judgment that’s involved in the process. And depending on what you choose to reward has dramatic implications on the individual, the team and the company. For example, new projects typically have a clear short term impact vs. quality and availability improvements on existing services typically have somewhat fuzzy but often broader long term impact. When timeboxed under the promo process, this drives a tilt towards chasing new projects. Impact or broadly outcomes are important, and they should be rewarded, with more money (cash, bonus, RSUs,...) but when it comes to promotions, we should reward the right behavior even more. The right behavioral norms are like cultural norms. They will vary from company to company and often vary during different phases of the company. But this is the right long term investment, and hence should be weighted heavily during the promotion process. So, if you see an employee consistently taking up tasks that improve quality, increases maintainability, drives organizational simplicity, enables faster onboarding of employees, customers, fosters strong culture - invest in their career growth because these are sure to have compounded long term returns.
VC Approach (I)
There are many reasons startups succeed where big companies fail. One big reason is that over time big companies become risk averse, and allocate a bulk of their capital towards sustaining innovation. This is well articulated in Christensen’s Innovator's Dilemma. On an individual level as well, most people become more risk averse as they age, preferring to apply tried and tested strategies wherever they can, including their careers. Early in your career, if you were part of a project that failed, you used it as a learning experience to land an even better opportunity. Mid career professionals see a failed project as a blemish on their resume. If anything, with the benefit of experience and maturity, a professional should be willing to take even more risks. Let’s look at the venture capital investment model. They do due diligence on every company they invest in. Yet, they also know 9 out of 10 companies are going to fail, and but they’re taking this risk because that 1 out of 10 (or 20, or 50) is going to give them 10,000x return! This is what they are looking for. In your career, not all opportunities are created equal. In a given opportunity, not all projects are equal either. Only by taking calculated risks, can you experience something that’s truly extraordinary.
Professional Mastery (I)
Rewards and promotions are important markers in career progression, but remember that they are external validations. All motivation is ultimately intrinsic. Motivation fuels all your pursuits, and the pursuit of excellence shouldn’t be too strongly tied to these external markers. Pursuing mastery, not status should be your ultimate pursuit. This is much easier said than done, of course. You will need to stare down peer pressure, pressure from your own expectations, imposter syndrome and your biggest foe, self-doubt. But it’s not only possible, and absolutely worthwhile - those elevated souls walk among us. Jiro Dreams of Sushi, is a great character study of a man with a lifelong passion, about what it takes to find your ambition and work relentlessly at it day after day, year after year. I’ll leave with a quote from Jiro Ono on mastery -
“Once you decide on your occupation… you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success… and is the key to being regarded honorably.” – Jiro Ono